With the dog days of summer in full swing and Rutgers football training camp just about one month away, I wanted to focus on the current state of recruiting for the program under third year head coach Chris Ash. I was fortunate to speak with Todderick Hunt, who covers Rutgers football recruiting for NJ Advance Media and has done so overall for the past decade. We discussed how recruiting has changed over the years, the challenges that Rutgers faces in recruiting in the Big Ten, covered some key assistants that have pushed things forward and discussed the position group and current commit that impresses him the most. Let’s kick things off here.
AB: To begin, please give us some background on how you got started, how long you’ve been with the Star-Ledger/NJ Advance Media and how long you have covered Rutgers football recruiting?
TH: I got my start on StateofRutgers.com, which was a part of Scout.com at the time. Don, who is a former player, brought me on and I was able to develop a following. Ultimately, we ended up leaving the Scout network and they brought in another site. I had always worked in finance out of college, in stock options, restricted stock, ESPP and so I was able to write for the website while I was doing that. When we walked away from the website, I went back to finance. I then worked as a supervisor of counselors for people with disabilities, did some different things and then NJ.com called and brought me on for what was at the time, a part-time opportunity. And I was able to work that into a full-time role as I developed a strong following. Prior to that, NJ.com utilized reporters from the Ledger for their online content and not their own. So I became the first actual sports reporter for NJ.com. They were able to use me to figure out what they wanted to do as far as potentially bringing on other guys full-time. And now you see what we’ve become. Outside of that, I call games for ESPN and usually games for News 12 Varsity and also Verizon Fios One. And I’m a pretty highly-regarded N.J. talent scout which has led to other opportunities, as well.
AB: That’s an amazing background. It’s really cool how you were able to work your way up. How long have you actually been with the Ledger and how long have you been covering Rutgers recruiting?
TH: I’ve been covering Rutgers football recruiting for a good 10-11 years now. I’ve actually been with the Ledger, not necessarily the Ledger, but NJ Advance Media, the parent company, I want to say for six years.
AB: With the early signing period now, it’s definitely changed things recruiting wise. How have you seen things evolve over time, in terms of the recruiting landscape and how it’s affected the whole process?
TH: I think this early signing period has everybody a little out of whack. I was talking to a coach for a post just the other day and he was basically saying the same thing. It creates this pressure cooker for these kids to hop in on these opportunities a lot earlier than they probably should have to. You are allotted your five official visits. It’s almost expected at this point that kids aren’t going to take all five of those visits. Teams are trying to lock them down and get them to commit early. They are able to use that early signing period to do so and create competition for spots. It’s a shame because these kids work for these opportunities, they earn them over a four year period with hard work and dedication. Then they almost get to the end and now kids don’t even get the opportunity to take all of their visits.
Especially if you are a marginal recruit, a guy without a lot of leverage. Having just 2, 3 or 4 offers and not a big time guy. Those big time recruits can sit on things and take things a little bit deeper into the process. If you are a guy without a lot of opportunities and each of your schools is only taking one more guy at your position, you feel the pressure. It’s sped things up, things are out of whack. Schools can be nudging kids that are committed at the time to sign early, because if you aren’t going to sign early, are you really committed or not? They put that pressure on the kids. I think it’s helped the schools gain a little leverage in getting these kids into their class. That’s just one aspect of it. It’s really changed the entire landscape over all when it comes down to how you treat the process.
AB: Especially with how social media and the way things take off now, it’s seems so much harder to keep things quiet, with the way recruits use social media to promote things?
TH: Yeah and before it was so much different. It came down to the whole commitment process, we used to be on the ground and break commitment news. I still break some here and there when there is that opportunity, but now, especially with twitter, kids are pretty much allowed to tell their own story and put their own news out.
Now it’s become, as a reporter, if you break a commitment, you actually have fans that are going to be angry at you about putting something out first before a kid actually confirms or puts out a tweet themselves. It’s changed in now you have to kind of wait for the kids to put that out first and then you can jump on the story. Even if you had spoken to them a few days beforehand and gotten quotes, you can have your post ready, but most people are waiting for the kid to actually confirm. That’s become a part of the commitment process, the recruit confirming themselves over social media platform and then, we just kind of pick up the pieces in telling the story.
When I first started, it was us at Scout and it was the guys over at Rivals. A lot of those guys have actually become some of my buddies now, but we weren’t always that way. It was a real competitive time back then, between Scout and Rivals. We’d fight for commitments, we’d fight for news. Really competitive, cutthroat competition that we had for a long time there. It was always who will be first to break the commitment and get that news out. It’s certainly changed, as far as that piece of the recruiting dynamic.
AB: That’s really interesting perspective. Diving in now in regard to Rutgers specifically, you’ve covered three different coaching regimes with Greg Schiano, Kyle Flood and now Chris Ash. How would you assess the state of recruiting right now with the program?
TH: Sometimes people get really concerned when you come into this time of year and they only see two kids committed to the class, but I never make too much of it. Pretty much every summer around June, they pick up a string of commitments. It is normally done by utilizing the offseason camp circuit and having top recruits on campus. All these different things are going on. I’m there reporting and live tweeting. Some of the other media members are doing the same as well. A lot of times, they really take it advantage of that atmosphere and get the good feelings going. The recruits are around some current players, maybe some former players, as well as some that are already committed to play there in the future. They all get sucked up in that vacuum of excitement. A lot of times you will see a string of commitments, like they have over the past couple weeks or so. Bringing in four guys over the course of a couple of days.
I expect that to continue over the next couple of months with a few guys trickling in. There are some running backs right now that I feel are on the cusp that Rutgers could add to the fold. I’d say so far it’s shaping up to be a solid class and pretty Jersey centric, which is good. You definitely want to see them start grabbing those top quarter recruits in my NJ.com Top 50 in-state recruits, which I just released on Monday. But they are getting good players who want to be there. I think they are in the mix with a good number of guys who can help complete this class and make it a solid one, somewhere in the lower 40’s, rankings wise. Right in that range where Rutgers has been flirting with the past couple of years.
AB: Fans get nervous when they don’t see top ten players in-state in the recruiting class. How important do you think it is with Ash entering year three, in terms of continuing to build depth, that he is at least adding middle ranked players (six commits are ranked between 15th and 36th in the current 247 Sports rankings for New Jersey) who do want to be there, despite missing on the top players in the state. Is there almost more value in that at this stage of the rebuild, because establishing depth is so important?
TH: At this point, you just have to win. There are no moral victories. You get the best players you can in here, you coach them up best you can and go out there and try to win football games. The toughest part about it is, I often equate college football recruiting to a dog chasing it’s tail. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? You need good players to win games, yet you need to win games to get good players. It’s usually some type of seismic shifting event, when a team or program goes through a quick fix. One year they can’t win any games, the next they break out with ten wins. It’s usually either do to some type of coaching change or something seismic to shift things within the program outside of the norm.
For the majority of coaches who take on rebuilding a program, it does take time. It takes a lot of work and it can be hard to see the tangibles and positives. I think (Ash and staff) have certainly corrected things within the program, in terms of getting them on track. Perception wise, you haven’t seen a whole lot of off the field stuff going on. Players are looking bigger, more physical, more built for the Big Ten. Listen, they’ve won six games in two years. I think they need to win six games this season and get to a bowl, anyway possible. And if they can accomplish that, I think the future could be bright.
AB: Good points. In terms of what you referenced from the recent commitments, Rutgers added a couple recruits from the Big North conference. How encouraged should fans be, especially with the addition of assistant coach Nunzio Campanile? It seems like Ash is making a concerted effort to tap into that area and network in a way Rutgers hasn’t been in the past?
TH: I think that is definitely a big part of the plan. I know coach Nunzio and I know he is way more than just some guy you bring in to recruit. He’s a heck of a football coach too. He knows X’s & O’s. He understands personnel. He understands how to scheme. He also understands how to evaluate players. That’s why I believe Bergen Catholic is the most talented high school football program throughout the state. He certainly has a lot to bring to the table. He will be pointed in that direction of all those Big North schools to get back in there and recruit those guys. The cool thing about those schools is that even though during the season they can’t stand each other and they compete so hard against one another, they kind of stand as a unit off the field. They represent their brand and what differentiates their programs from the others across the state. Nunzio is welcomed in all of those buildings, has a good relationships throughout those buildings and Rutgers is hoping that can pay off with some pledges. Will it work out ultimately, who knows? However, it certainly helps to get your foot in the door and starts you off on the right track with a lot of those guys.
AB: I wanted to ask about another new hire with Noah Joseph, who came in with a pretty good reputation as a recruiter. I wanted your thoughts on the impact he’s made so far not only on the recruiting front, but as well as the impact you think he will make with the staff as a veteran coach?
TH: I actually mentioned this to him when I ran into him at passing camp recently at Rutgers. I didn’t know a whole lot about him coming in, but we had actually shot some type of press conference with him or whatever it was. I popped it on and listened to what he had to say for the first time and I was automatically sold. His poise and the plan. The measured qualities he spoke with, you could tell he is a bright young man and coach who understands the game. He understands young players, how to recruit. It makes a lot of sense when you hear about all of the recruiting success that he has had and clout from being around some of the top kids in South Jersey and Philadelphia. You can see how it works together and makes sense for him. There is definitely something about him that allows him to relate to these kids and help some of them hop on board. Also, he can really help Ash coach up that secondary and get those guys get in the right places at the right times, helping them ultimately win some games.
AB: Florida was obviously a big recruiting focus for Schiano and somewhat for Flood. It seems like Ohio is becoming the new Florida for the current staff under Ash as they make a concerted effort to recruit that state. Do you agree?
TH: I think that’s a fair statement. The thing about Florida is that Schiano knew he had to tap into that speed because he needed something to differentiate Rutgers from the other local programs. He was able to coin the term “state of Rutgers” which included New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, but also states like Florida. He was able to get that one thing from that state that a lot of programs couldn’t find, which was speed. He developed a nice pipeline from Florida to Rutgers. He hit that state hard and benefited because of the speed on the field as a result.
When recruiting Florida kids, it’s always tough. Especially when you are Rutgers and they live so far away, it’s hard to keep tabs on them. I also feel like guys in Florida and some of those SEC states just get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to offers. A lot of those guys who may have 10 to 12 offers in New Jersey, put them in Florida, they’d probably have 25-30. Obviously when you have more options, you are more likely to look at other places and you just have more going on. Even when you have those guys committed, it always a struggle to keep them committed because you aren’t close to them. You also have to deal with the fact that there are so many schools coming through their high school every single day and you not being right on top of them, it’s tough to control that. That’s when they can potentially end up de-committing and making your program look bad.
I think that could be a potential factor in why the current regime is choosing to hit Ohio really hard. There are a number of coaches on the staff that have Midwest ties, so they are already comfortable with the coaches and football in that area. They probably have known some of these kids since they’ve come up from youth football. It’s something the coaches already have in their pockets and already have a leg up when it comes to recruiting the area and with those relationships already established. It’s something they are looking to take advantage of, as opposed to just relying on a lot of brand new relationships.
AB: Specifically speaking about positions, Ash has upgraded the talent in the skill positions a lot and time will tell on how they actually produce. Obviously, it’s a concern with the current class in regard to the lack of depth with the defensive line, a position that has a big impact overall on the future success of the defense. Do you think it is more of a product of being in the Big Ten and the best programs in the conference traditionally recruiting New Jersey well are making it tough, or is it something that could sort itself out over time?
TH: Those big guys, especially those interior big’s, they are hard to find. I mean they don’t grow on trees. That’s why those guys make the big money when it comes to the NFL. Those big three techniques, five techniques. Those inside guys, the tweak out guys, the zero’s in the 3-4’s, those guys make all the money simply because they are hard to find. It’s hard to find guys that are big and strong, 6’3” 300+ pounds, but can also run like linebackers. Those types of players are the ones that are sought out because they man those positions.
In a conference like the Big Ten, which I would say is the greatest conference in college football, those guys come at a premium. The Big Ten East is definitely the best division I think. It’s surpassed the SEC. You’ll have a hard time with certain people admitting that to you. One of the reasons for it is the offensive and defensive line play. The size for both and it’s known as being a big, tough, physical conference. You have to really be prepared to go to war week in and week out. There are no weeks off, even if you are competing against some of the weaker teams in the division, you’ll still get a game. You still have to deal with some really elite body types and the physicality, meaning you really have to get out there and play your game in order to get a win.
It’s certainly pertinent to fill those roles. I can understand why they are having a hard time doing so, simply because there aren’t a ton of those guys out there. So when you do get your hooks in a guy, you have to make sure you get them signed, get him on campus, and get him to work, because its hard to do.
AB: What position group have you been the most impressed with, either in this current class or just overall in Ash’s tenure so far, in terms of how he’s upgraded it talent wise?
TH: That’s a good question. I’ll probably say without really thinking deep through every position group, off the top of my head, I’d say the offensive line. I like what he did signing Sam Vretman, Micah Clark, and then you pick up Raiqwon O’Neal, a guy from last year’s class who will contribute and potentially could start this year, if he can continue to impress. That’s three key guys, three potential starters, three potential All-Big Ten players along that offensive front. So that’s certainly a group that you can get excited about. There is some decent depth obviously in the defensive backfield as well, but I like what they’ve done upfront addressing the trenches, which is where they need to be better in order to compete against these teams like the Ohio State’s and Penn State’s in the conference.
AB: How important has AJ Blazek been in terms of recruiting that position, but also just overall for the program, in being the associate head coach and the impact he has made overall in the recruiting process?
TH: I think he’s made a really big impact. I think he serves as a great buffer for the program. There are a lot of different personality types on the staff. You do have some older guys that may be a little bit drier in approach. Having a guy like AJ around is a great change of pace. Like those other guys, he absolutely loves football, but unlike those guys, it kind of permeates through everything he does. The excitement of it all, he is a real hands on coach. I’ve been around him at a bunch of different camps where he has been really hands on with the guys and helps to recruit in that he really enjoys doing what he does. He has a great energy about him. He loves offensive line play. He loves guys going out and competing, improving throughout camps with coaching and helping give guys opportunities at the next level. Guys that deserve it. I think he is been really good overall for the program.
AB: Last question and thank you for everything. Who is the current commit right now that stands out to you that Rutgers fans should be really excited about in terms of future?
TH: I really like Zukudo Igwenagu. I think overall they’ve (coaching staff) done a good job so far with the current class, but he is the guy you look at and just say wow. Just watching him run around at the NJ Opening Regional, just a kid so big, long and fast, yet able to stay in phase defensively, one on one, out on the island, transitions well, can flip his hips. He can probably can get a little looser and I think ultimately he will end up as a second level defender at the WILL linebacker or maybe even the SAM position due to his length. He can really match up with those tight ends down the field and make some plays. Plus he is going to fill out as well. He has some elite metrics, he’s really physically gifted, enjoys the game, and is a really humble kid that I feel like could have snagged 15-20 offers, if not more, just due to his athletic ability, but the state that he plays in – Massachusetts – is not a heavily recruited football state.